Feeds

Computer Chess: Geek, gaming and retro-tech movie of the year

‘The chessboard is the world, the pieces the phenomena of the Universe’

Gartner critical capabilities for enterprise endpoint backup

Film Review Surely no normal person would ever want to spend an hour and a half, let alone a whole weekend, in the company of beardy-weirdy 1970s computer nerds as they challenge their chess programs to beat all comers – and maybe, one day, even a human too?

Director Andrew Bujalski must be rather keen to do so, because it’s the subject of his new film, Computer Chess, which opens in the UK next month. Watch it and, like him, you may well find these ’spotters - introverts and egocentrics, boffins and bullshitters - have hidden depths. Their software too.

Computer Chess

Tsar wars: Peter Bishton (Patrick Riester) and Martin Beuscher (Wiley Wiggins) gear up to win

Brits may not have heard of Bujalski, but he’s been writing and directing feature films in the States for nearly a decade and is something of a rising star of the US independent film scene. Computer Chess is his fourth movie. He describes it as “an existential comedy” and, in a filmed introduction to the film, “a period piece”.

Both descriptions are apt. Computer Chess is anchored in a specific era, the late 1970s and early 1980s, and you’ll certainly chuckle and laugh out loud, though it’s humorous, observational comedy rather than slapstick or farce. But this is a film that delivers a whole lot more than a fond, gently mocking look at a gawky, geeky milieu.

Computer Chess takes place at a three-day chess tournament in which teams of programmers – some from universities, others from companies, individuals too – pit their programs against each other in a clash of calculators where the winning software will grapple with a human grandmaster.

Computer Chess

Peter Bishton channels a young Bill Gates

Smartly shot on black-and-white analogue NTSC video at an old-style telly 4:3 aspect ratio, the movie thoroughly invokes the clumsy, on-to-something-bigger-than-they-know world of 1970s computer research, melding Doug Engelbart’s ‘Mother of all Demos’ with, initially at least, the mockumentary style of This is Spinal Tap.

Yet Computer Chess cleverly wears its era lightly. This is not a film obsessed with achieving historical accuracy to umpteen decimal places. This is a movie about people far more than the time it’s set in. It’s not restricted by history - it’s no Micro Men.

Retro computing fans will naturally spot errors. The big box one band of boffins wheel into the convention is said by one of them to be a DEC PDP-11, but it looked too small to me. Certainly the Compaq Portable, which didn’t ship until 1983, wouldn’t have been be available for the film’s “circa 1980” setting, and neither would the Osborne One another team makes use of.

Computer Chess

Terminal velocity ... a Teletype-like machine spews paper printouts

This really doesn’t matter. All the machines present, and be they Pets, Zeniths, Imsais, Tandy TRS-80s, Amdahl TTYs or whatever - every one of them with a clunk-clunk-clack keyboard and a white-on-black CRT character display - are there to set the retro tone, and they do it perfectly.

Likewise, Bujalski makes very little use of contemporary computerspeak and jargon. What argot there is is caught through scene-setting snatches of whispered conversation as participants discuss their progress and that of the their competitors.

Boost IT visibility and business value

Next page: Board not boring

More from The Register

next story
Kate Bush: Don't make me HAVE CONTACT with your iPHONE
Can't face sea of wobbling fondle implements. What happened to lighters, eh?
Apple takes blade to 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display
Shaves price, not screen on mid-2014 model
iPhone 6 flip tip slips in Aussie's clip: Apple's 'reversible USB' leaks
New plug not compatible with official Type-C, according to fresh rumors
FEAST YOUR EYES: Samsung's Galaxy Alpha has an 'entirely new appearance'
Wow, it looks like nothing else on the market, for sure
The agony and ecstasy of SteamOS: WHERE ARE MY GAMES?
And yes it does need a fat HDD (or SSD, it's cool with either)
YES YES YES! Apple patents mousy, pressure-sensing iVibrator
Fanbois prepare to experience the great Cupertin-O
Steve Jobs had BETTER BALLS than Atari, says Apple mouse designer
Xerox? Pff, not even in the same league as His Jobsiness
TV transport tech, part 1: From server to sofa at the touch of a button
You won't believe how much goes into today's telly tech
Apple analyst: fruity firm set to shift 75 million iPhones
We'll have some of whatever he's having please
prev story

Whitepapers

5 things you didn’t know about cloud backup
IT departments are embracing cloud backup, but there’s a lot you need to know before choosing a service provider. Learn all the critical things you need to know.
Implementing global e-invoicing with guaranteed legal certainty
Explaining the role local tax compliance plays in successful supply chain management and e-business and how leading global brands are addressing this.
Build a business case: developing custom apps
Learn how to maximize the value of custom applications by accelerating and simplifying their development.
Rethinking backup and recovery in the modern data center
Combining intelligence, operational analytics, and automation to enable efficient, data-driven IT organizations using the HP ABR approach.
Next gen security for virtualised datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.